Guilt and Shame, The same side of a different coin

Most people when they talk about Shame and Guilt are generally meaning the same thing.  But there are differences between the two and different reasons for the two appearing.

Both guilt and shame fall under the sadness family of emotions and have many similarities in body postures and facial expressions but there are also differences that are subtle in their appearance.

Lets look at the the dictionary definition of the two words:

Guilt [gilt] noun: A feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offence, crime, wrong: whether real or imagined

Shame [sheym] noun: The painful feeling arising form consciousness of something dishonourable, improper, ridiculous etc.

 

Their definitions are quite clearly different but we seem to blur the edges between guilt and shame quite a lot. Perhaps we need a more understandable explanation of what guilt and shame are about.

I see shame as internalised about how we are being perceived, you can associate it with the question “what would people think…?”  This is why I say it is internalised.  A lot of the time shame appears before we even have any interaction with others.  These feelings can then be increased depending on the reaction of others, especially those we respect.  I still believe that shame starts with us.

Guilt can be both internal and external and is based on our understanding of moral limits.  If we have broken a well established behavioural rule we are likely to feel guilt.  As these rules are socially recognised by all people from the same social group we know we have breached the acceptable.  It is important to know that guilt would only be felt if you also accept the same moral code.  For instance something that is acceptable in your own country but considered a crime elsewhere would not necessarily result in guilt, unless you were aware that you were committing a crime and accepted the reason behind the crime.

It is also important to know that you can feel shame and guilt independently of each other.  Lying to a person in a position of power to protect someone else may not be shameful but would still have elements of guilt.  Stepping out of the toilets with your skirt tucked in your knickers would not cause guilt, but may make you feel shame.

Think of a man whose mother is very ill with a serious terminal medical condition.  There is no prospect of getting better and she is in constant pain.  There is no longer a quality of life.  She asks her son to help her end her life.  In the performance of the act would there be a feeling of guilt?  Guilt based on the ingrained ethical rules of killing another is morally wrong may be overridden by the need to help his mother.  The moral and ethical need to prevent someone he loved from suffering my override this more distant legal issue.  By giving permission the mother may have removed some of the guilt issues.  Would he feel shame at the act?  It is unlikely, he is given permission, he is helping his mother and stopping the ongoing suffering.

This is a very important distinction to be understood when you are looking at the responses that someone gives you.  Motives play a big part in the shame response.  If someone believes, either rightly or wrongly, that they are doing something for the right reasons, shame is unlikely to appear.  If they know they have committed a crime or a wrong they will feel guilt.

I would also consider that guilt is a developed and reinforced response.  As we grow older and come into contact more and more with the rights and wrongs of our society, the moral fences we work within are reinforced and built upon.  Exposure to media and social interaction further reinforces the ideas of right and wrong, making it more likely that guilt will be felt if one of these boundaries are crossed.

As mentioned, guilt and shame both fall under the sadness family of emotions so there will be many similarities with the sadness emotion.  Eyebrows pulled in and up in the middle and down at the outer edge; a turn down of the outer edge of the lips.  Lowered shoulders or a slumped posture. Often there will be a turning away or a down and away head posture, especially with shame, an almost “don’t look at me” pose.

There is something very important to consider when we are looking at shame and guilt.  They are key factors to being able to detect deception.  The emotional leakage required to pick up on a statement that lacks credibility may not be present if the deceiver feels no guilt or shame over the act.  No internal ethical barriers are broken, there is nothing to leak.  There could be reasons for this to happen.  Lack of experience in that particular area (unknown crime with no past experience of the rules); Autism and other medical conditions that can affect the emotional understanding may give a different result.

However, there is one other group that would not show shame or guilt, but instead may even show excitement or happiness.  The psychopath does not have the same moral or ethical triggers as the rest of society.  Their own pathology will allow their behaviour without consequence.

 

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s